The walking out of Strasbourg dismantles the theories of “tiny” spatial differences somewhat, but only because I can’t knock on doors and check out the Biedermanns in their many forms in the massive mansion blocks. But, things change again long before I’ve left the old town canals. There’s the “plage” boat cafe disco things that complement the canal cruises I’ve stayed well clear of.
The University, loving it’s students, proclaims a large poster. Big wide Haussmann streets, shops not so frequent, shiny cars; then the Council of Europe and all those flags, quiet today, Saturday. Warm too. I zig through the Orangerie, pass the roller skaters and couples and boaters, and a lakeside cafe with a battalion of purple pool tables, as though in wait of the artist now known as Prince again
The other side of the park; suburbia, a turn and I am on the canal – well the Rhine, actually. Houseboats, swans, powerboats, and the inkling of heavy industry. A few wrong turnings and I’m peeing under a bridge at a dead end, a hidden spot, with a large Che graffiti and half a dozen beer cans.
Scramble back, and the industry starts riverside. Large wide low barges. A tow path for bikers. But first a long stretch of Berlin-style Checkpoint Charley wasteland – it is the route – that I walk in the sun alone. The Spy Who Came in from the Hot.
To my left a park with huge warnings about toxic waste and nuclear power, so maybe not. Then the walk. Five hours, straight. By the river, jealous of the power boats; even the container barges. The cyclists pass in singles, pairs and groups. I smile at each. But five hours later I am very tired, and Lichtenau, my destination, seems hours away yet. At one of those border restaurants (with added tourist office) I slump to be entertained by a waiter who speaks about a hundred languages. The tourist office says that Lichtenau is out of her jurisdiction, and books me into Ziegelhof – still Germany. Only two hours walk, she says – though she phones to warn the hotel I’ll be, er, late.
Across the river; an autobahn, and a pit stop at a petrol station for ice-tea and chocolate reserves for later. Lost path, lost river. IPAD says go sort of 45 degrees. I ask: down there, past the lake and then the side of the village. Easy after that.
Long shadows now, and a punishing day already. I walk past a cement factory, and then the lake. The cars above are crashing past at German speeds. Into a small forest. A picnic, 20 people.
It isn’t a picnic. It is three of four sets of Roma families, cooking rough. Out in the wild. They don’t look at me, don’t acknowledge. It is like a scene from a war; a scene of exile. I wonder if they have come over from France because of the French government laws. I feel terrible.
I take the village cut though. Past the factory with the long low wire fences. At about 6.30 as the sun is beginning to set and the shadows grow ever longer I turn to see two alsatian dogs, one black, one white, running at me from 200 metres. I genuinely think I am going to die. In a somewhat pathetic manner I cower.
They don’t jump. Just go insane about four feet from me.
I turn around and walk through the village, and then another; fields playing Van Gogh tricks; Kiefer tricks. Rain. Lost. IPAD not helpful. Great sunset, another village, but not Ziebelhof. Nobody’s heard of it.
A village, deserted, dead. And at its centre, The Pussy Cat Strip Club. Last used 450 millennia ago, it seems. Out of the mists along a track a 15 year old girl on roller skates. Ziebelhof, I say. Never heard of it. I’ll go look.
She zooms off, a vision of wonder. Twenty heavy minutes later she returns. I’ve found it, keep going, not so far, stay to the road.
And with a sweet smile she is gone. The Gods have smiled on me for liking roller skaters, ever since early Switzerland. The visions have been wonderful today; the industry lurking just outside Strasbourg, Basel-esquely. The long stretches of river, very like, only far longer, that stretch of the Thames at Richmond which Turner and Wordsworth loved. I wonder if Tom, who knew that part of the Thames what with one John Dee or King or Queen or Prince – or another, thought the same thing. There’s no doubting that we talked, Tom and I, for a minute during that part of the walk.
Dark now and Ziebelhof, five miles (now the signs tell me) from Lichtenau, where Tom stayed. The town is actually a motel, and two houses. Inside the motel there’s a bunch of domestic bikers having dinner. Dieter, the owner, is an ex East German policeman, 28 years. “And then I had to start working,” he says. He loves my IPAD; shows me his IPhone apps – the favourite? An app for streaming country music.
German country music from the 1970s.
What about the Pussy Cat Club? I ask Dieter. Ach, closed forever.
“Open, in fact,” says a man who lives two weeks a month here, doing something with the electricity. “Even the coffee starts at 8 Euros.”
I turn on the television and doze over wifi. Then some channel launches Help, by The Beatles. In German. I burst uncontrollably into tears. Then, in the post-modern way, post this fact on Facebook.
In the morning Dieter tells me about the “community”. But that really is for tomorrow’s walk; and my first real full day with German signage. Or indeed, its absence.